Television and film production in Los Angeles is shuttered until mid-January (at the earliest), and it’s no wonder: Every day last month brought news of another COVID-19 outbreak – on television series including Impeachment: American Crime Story and The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills; on the film Don’t Worry Darling, starring Francis Pugh and Harry Styles; even on commercials. Tom Cruise tore a strip off two crew members for not following COVID-19 protocols on Mission: Impossible 7, which had already lost two weeks to an outbreak while shooting in Italy. “That’s what I sleep with every night,” Cruise said, “the future of this industry.”
In Canada, by contrast, film and television production – which is deemed an essential service – has been a minor miracle of success. Among others, Nurses, Burden of Truth, Kim’s Convenience, Hudson & Rex, Private Eyes and Pretty Hard Cases (a new woman cop series) completed full, albeit sometimes shorter, seasons during the summer and fall. Diggstown opted to hold off shooting until spring 2021; instead, its creators produced an independent film, a thriller called The Boathouse, directed by Hannah Cheesman.
Though every production abruptly shut down in March, 2020, the show still went on: Canada’s television writers hunkered down in Zoom rooms, while producers reached out to one another virtually, from Canada to England to New Zealand, to develop protocols so they’d be ready to spring back into action. “We spent four, five months on a task force, talking with other producers,” Alex Jordan, the producer of Private Eyes, told me. “We’d meet every week online. We wanted to go back as soon as the government let us, so we had to be prepared.”
They discussed what new equipment they’d need. They scrambled to insure their productions. And they negotiated a “snap hiatus” with Canada’s guilds and unions: an emergency two-week shutdown, without having to pay out the crew (which would normally cost $300,000 to $1-million), to balance health concerns with budget necessities.
“It was an unexpected highlight of 2020, to connect with and build a community of pandemic producers,” Amy Cameron, the producer of Pretty Hard Cases, told me. “Checking in by phone or text. All of us grappling with same need: to keep our crews both working and safe.”
They compiled protocol manuals that ran 30, 80, 100 pages long: Do guest stars need to quarantine? What if someone gets sick mid-day? How can you keep crew members safe when they’re going home every night? How do you handle meals, which are so crucial on sets? Which crew members are allowed near the actors (the only people who are truly irreplaceable)? How do we test? Who do we test? Though Canadian series are accustomed to operating on razor-thin budgets, thrumming under every question was, How much will this cost? And how can we afford it?
In June, the government gave the green light to resume filming. Hudson & Rex was the first series to go to camera, on July 13; Nurses started up the next day. Nurses was a good test case, because it’s shot mostly in studio, a more controllable environment than on location. Still, “It was nerve-wracking,” executive producer Linda Pope told me. (She also produces Burden of Truth, which shoots in Winnipeg.) “All eyes were on us to see if we could be successful. Every time the phone rang, I’d jump out of my skin.” She hired an epidemiologist and infectious disease expert to walk through the studio and make suggestions, some of which were later adopted by other producers.
At first, “we went overboard,” Pope said. “Remember, these were early days; people were still washing their groceries.” Crews were divided into pods – electricians, carpenters, lighting, props, etc. – and each pod worked separately. Some were assigned designated entrances and exits to the sets. Some had separate washroom trailers, which gets costly. Every production purchased air purifiers, which run $400 to $8,000 apiece. Some producers even taped traffic-flow arrows to the ground – though they quickly abandoned that.
“Every single thing about everything we did was hard,” Pope said. “I have never done anything harder in my entire life. And on top of it all, the stakes were literally life or death.”
Eventually, productions settled on the basics: Keep physical distance unless you absolutely can’t (makeup artists still have to apply makeup; props and equipment still have to be moved). Masks, always, mainly N95s. Two 15-minute mask breaks a day, outside. Hand sanitizer in every tool belt. Hand-washing, constantly.
Zach Zohr owns Hamilton Film Studios, which rents production equipment. “Sinks, sanitizing stations – those weren’t items we carried in 2019,” he said in a phone interview. When orders began pouring in, he and his partner made a deal with local manufacturer Stony Creek, which quickly built prototypes. “Stainless steel, plug in, hot and cold water,” Zohr said. “By July we were purchasing.” They also rent fogging machines, which can sterilize entire rooms in a few hours. In December he had gear out to “20 or 30 productions. We’re as busy now as we were this time last year.”
He’s also renting more tents, tables and chairs than ever, “because everything now is about having more space,” Zohr continued. Communal craft service (snack) tables disappeared immediately, but crews still need to eat. Now they order food from on-set caterers, who deliver selections in biodegradable packages. On some sets, crews still sit together – two people at opposite ends of a table for six. On Private Eyes, which wrapped Dec. 16, the crew ate in a loading bay – doors open, air purifiers running and Plexiglas dividers on the tables. “We made it work, hollering through plexi at one another,” Jordan said.
In British Columbia, protocols were equally stringent, per Work Safe BC guidelines, even though the COVID-19 numbers were lower. “In late summer and early fall, we had 50 to 60 productions underway,” said Prem Gill, the CEO of Creative BC. “That’s higher than past years. We were shooting Christmas movies right up to Christmas Eve.”
Work in B.C. remains steady, with seven films and 18 series currently shooting, including Riverdale and Supergirl. Although Kevin, the actor character on This Is Us played by Justin Hartley, announced in the most recent episode that his series was moving from Los Angeles to Vancouver “because it’s safer there,” Gill hasn’t heard of that happening in real life.
“We’ve had no major inquiries from L.A.,” she said. “It’s not a simple task to move a show to a different jurisdiction. Our goal is to have everyone in every part of our industry remain robust.”
Across Canada, a typical shooting day begins with COVID-19 teams (typically three to nine people – a department entirely new to filmmaking) meeting crew members in the parking lot. They take temperatures, do a health assessment and sometimes send people home. (The symptoms of a hangover, it turns out, are quite similar to those of COVID-19.)
On set, people stick to their zones: The inner circle includes anyone who can be on set when actors are unmasked, including directors and camera operators. Lead makeup artists and costumers stay in their offices, and the cast comes to them, one by one. The next zone – props, electric, script supervisors – can be on set when actors are masked. The production offices, normally bustling hives, are empty; those staffers work from home, following the action virtually. Every set is a closed set: no visitors, no press.
“On set, who can be where, when – all that is deeply ingrained in film crews,” said Daniel Bekerman, president of Scythia Films, who produced two independent features under COVID-19 protocols (including Slash/Back, about an alien invasion in Pangnirtung, Nunavut directed by Nyla Innuksuk). “The whole crew had to relearn how to make movies. Shooting in narrow spaces, the movement of people getting to the camera, all the things you normally don’t think about, now every step was new in ways that might seem minute but were destabilizing. But film crews are good at finding their ways around challenges. Riding the wave of change is what we do.”
Communication was compromised, too. “Eighty-five per cent of communication is nonverbal,” Cameron said. “You take that away, and it’s hard to read people. My dry sense of humour is lost under a mask.” A director can’t whisper notes to an actor, or tell by glancing at the cinematographer that she got the shot. Actors had to rehearse in PPE, and fight their instincts to move closer in intimate scenes. There were fewer takes, less improvising.
Sherren Lee directed two episodes of Kim’s Convenience without ever seeing her crew’s faces. “They’ve all worked together, but I was new,” she said. During one outdoor mask break, a crew member waved at her. She stared blankly. “He put on his mask and I said, ‘Oh! Joe!’ I couldn’t recognize him without his mask on.”
“You can’t understand a thing anyone is saying,” Adriana Maggs, who directed an episode of Hudson & Rex in October, told me. “That’s hard, because there are so many split-second decisions. Everyone is coming up to you, ‘this purse or that purse?,’ ‘what is the blocking?,’ and you’re hearing ‘muffle muffle muffle.’ You end up doing a lot of yelling.”
“There was still camaraderie,” Pope said. “But COVID-19 took out the fun. Everyone had to treat everyone else like they had it.”
“You could feel the collective anxiety, that no one felt they were doing their jobs to 100 per cent of abilities,” Cameron said. “Actors and crews like to deliver. So it was disheartening.”
Producers tried to liven things up. Cameron instituted a coffee-talk Zoom at 9:30 a.m., so people could pop on, ask questions and see each other’s faces. Her stars, Meredith MacNeill and Adrienne C. Moore, would whoop and do high kicks every morning for their COVID-19 team leader. Kim’s Convenience hid speakers on set, so the directors and cinematographers could weigh in without shouting through PPE. They call it the Voice of God.
The precautions seem to have worked – none of the filmmakers or agency members I spoke to have heard of any COVID-19 transmission occurring on a set, including Alistair Hepburn, director of the film, television and digital media department for ACTRA (Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists) Toronto. A handful of crew on different shows took sick days, for some of which producers paid (normally sick days aren’t paid). Pretty Hard Cases took one snap hiatus, in October, after an asymptomatic crew member tested positive.
Still, shooting days slowed down, and costs mounted. Jordan estimates that COVID-19 protocols cost Private Eyes an extra $1-million. Pope says she spent 15 to 20 per cent more this season on both Nurses and Burden of Truth. The Boat House’s budget was under $2-million, co-producer Amos Adetuyi told me, but $50,000 of that went to COVID-19 measures. “We had to hire a person whose sole job was to keep track of the actors’ masks,” Adetuyi said. “We planned for weeks and weeks, but we didn’t plan for that.”
Most productions used only Canadian actors, because they couldn’t afford to pay outsiders to quarantine. In a normal season, Nurses can hire 100 background performers a day. During COVID-19, Pope hired a permanent group of 25, and guaranteed them work. “It meant fewer wide shots,” she said. “But everyone felt like they were part of this machine to get through it.”
The biggest expense, by far, was testing. Each private test costs $150 to $250. An average crew is 100 people. “And you have to pay people to come in to get tested,” Jordan said. So most producers settled on targeted testing: Test the cast and some crew weekly. Test every guest star. Test extras who are in closed spaces, but not ones who are outdoors.
Larger productions were able to strike deals with labs for bulk testing. But those costs are damning to smaller-budget and independent films, including most Christmas films. According to actor Tony Nappo, a frequent guest star on Canadian series including Private Eyes and Schitt’s Creek, those productions follow the letter of the law, but still put actors at risk.
“In the U.S., the Screen Actors Guild mandates that actors are tested twice a week,” he told me. But ACTRA has no such policy. “Their stance is, if you’re offered a part on a project that’s not testing, it’s up to you whether you take it or not. That’s a tough position to put actors in. Especially since we’re all hurting for money.”
On-set protocols aren’t the problem, he continued. “For the most part, they’re fantastic. But actors go home at night, their children go to school. And we go from set to set.”
ACTRA Toronto does not mandate testing, Hepburn confirms via e-mail. But they “encourage all producers to institute testing for performers … and encourage our members to educate themselves using our FAQ page and by attending our ongoing town hall series, and to make an informed decision whether or not they are comfortable to work on any given set,” he wrote. “ACTRA Toronto members working on sets and in studios follow the requirements laid out by the Ontario Ministry of Health and municipal Public Health agencies. … There are some smaller budget, small cast, small crew productions that do not have mandatory testing in place, but they are becoming more the exception rather than the rule.”
Back in March, producers began lobbying the Canadian government for a $100-million insurance program, in which producers pay into a pool that can be accessed in a COVID-19 emergency, so they could resume shooting. In November, the Canadian government came through with a $50-million plan. But independent films had already taken a hit. So did fledgling directors – especially directors of colour – as producers opted for experience. Also there were no trainees on set, which will impact the next generation of filmmakers.
“The federal plan needs to be renewed, to ensure that Canadian independent films are on a fair playing field,” Bekerman said. “Otherwise, the spectrum of Canadian film and television will be too narrow. Only the most established producers will be able to make anything. That was already happening, but COVID-19 exponentially multiplied the lack of access.”
That’s important, because our storytellers weren’t deemed essential services frivolously. COVID-19 has proven that stories are essential for our collective mental health. “We’re not saving lives,” Jordan said. “But I think our work is helping people get through this.”
“Having different voices express their perspectives is what holds a civil society together,” Bekerman said. “To keep healthy, we need to keep hearing, sharing and empowering those perspectives. Without it, people revert into their bubbles. Especially now, when we’re in literal bubbles, and so many people are isolated, connection through film and television is fundamental.”
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